By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer vowed yesterday to hold a vote "in the very near future" on legislation that would give the District a full voting seat in Congress.
"As majority leader, I tell you I intend to bring that bill to the floor," Hoyer (D-Md.) told the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. He criticized Washington's status, saying the city is "the only capital in the free world whose citizens do not have a voting member of their parliament."
The hearing marked the first step in the bill's path through Congress. It drew an overflow crowd to the wood-paneled room, including the measure's sponsor, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and numerous activists -- one in a purple colonial-style coat and a tricorn hat.
The bill is similar to legislation that passed the House in 2007 but failed in the Senate. It is designed to be nonpartisan by adding one House seat for the overwhelmingly Democratic District and another for the next state scheduled to pick up a seat according to the Census count. That is now Utah, which leans Republican.
Proponents say the legislation has its best chance yet of becoming law because of the expanded Democratic majority and support from President Obama. But yesterday's hearing gave a preview of the concerns that will be aired as the legislation moves to the full Judiciary Committee.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) asked witnesses whether a decision by lawmakers to add a House seat for the District could lead to a similar move in the Senate. Republicans worry that a gain of two D.C. seats in the 100-seat Senate would give Democrats a significant advantage.
Viet D. Dinh, a former assistant U.S. attorney general in the Bush administration, said that might not be possible because of different wording for representatives and senators in the Constitution. But Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said the phrases are not that different.
Turley said he finds it "incredibly offensive" that D.C. residents don't have a voting member of Congress. But he called the bill "flagrantly unconstitutional." He said the bill violates the constitutional provision that the House be composed of representatives of states. The District is not a state, he said.
Dinh said that provision had to be balanced against a clause in the Constitution allowing Congress sweeping control over the District.
"I do think the Supreme Court would uphold it," Dinh said, referring to the bill.
The hearing's biggest surprise came when one of the most vociferous opponents of the D.C. vote bill said he would introduce a bill this week to exempt D.C. residents from paying federal taxes until they got a vote in Congress.
"Taxation without representation -- that slogan has made an impression on me," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), referring to the message on the city's license plates. He said he will present separate legislation to return most of the District to Maryland so it can have full representation in Congress.
Norton dismissed the no-tax proposal, saying she had offered similar legislation in 2001 when her party was in the minority. "I got nowhere," she said.